9/5/14

A letter and a kid (4)

Anyway. My grandparents married in 1925, in the month of January. The wedding took place in the plain, white village church. I’m sure grandpa Ferdi had a pint or two. And the odd glass of schnapps. To wash down his Communist pride, to forget that entering the church, even for his own wedding, would be some kind of treason.
It was a cold, cold winter’s day. The country was hidden under a thick, harsh crust of snow. Fat, grey clouds covered the sky. At noon, a blizzard broke out and made the last, vague silhouettes disappear behind a curtain of snowflakes. When grandma Berta looked out of a window, she saw a last, hardy raven cross the farmyard, looking for shelter. The wind was howling, the wood in the stove was cracking.
Berta had a frugal lunch with the farmer’s family. A piece of rancid bread. A cup of substitute coffee because it was a special day. She cleaned up the kitchen. Then she took her best dress from the drawer. She put on her new shoes—she had saved up quite a sum to buy them. She wrapped a shawl around her skinny shoulders. A scarf over her head. She put on her shabby green winter coat. As she didn’t own gloves, she dug her hands deep in the pockets of her coat.
Ferdi didn’t come to pick her up. He didn’t propose, he wouldn't even have thought he should. In his world, there was no place for sentimentalism.
Therefore, Berta walked to Kleindorf all alone, in her new shoes, which were too thin for winter. Three kilometres in a blizzard. She scarcely saw the trail leading from the farm to the road or the road itself. She made her way by intuition, rifting through the snowstorm. After a few minutes she didn't feel her fingers anymore. She didn't feel her feet anymore.

Things went smoothly for the two of them. Grandma Berta managed to convince Ferdinand not to get involved in the Civil War that broke out in 1934, opposing left and right wing partisans. He kept a low profile under the new fascist regime that followed, too. A first son was born, then two daughters.
In 1938, Germany finally invaded and annexed Austria. The persecutions started. Even in the smallest jerkwater towns.
The new, icy wind came blowing through our calm, little Kleindorf, too. One day, in the still of the grey morning hours, men in black uniforms arrived in dark cars. Hamlet after hamlet, block after block, street after street, they knocked on certain doors. Dogs would bark, one could hear harsh orders, women crying and begging.
An hour later, lines of men and boys, in fact all the local Communists and Socialists, young and old, were led toward the central square with their hands held up high above their heads. A cemetery silence fell over the village, only disturbed by the occasional sigh, the odd swish of a curtain someone was drawing aside to watch the macabre parade.
The men in black distributed shovels and made their captives dig a deep ditch. When the work was done, the highest-ranking Nazi officer barked, “Position yourselves along the ditch! Turn around!”
The captives complied.
The Nazis took target. Their sten guns crackled. And more than two dozen men tumbled into the ditch.
Kleindorf stank of gunpowder and death.
Grandpa Ferdi wasn’t among the killed. How he escaped is a mystery to me. I don’t know, either, how he managed to survive until the end of the war. Did he climb the slope behind the village, hide in the forest, and wait out the war? Or did he find shelter on one of the farms?
I’m grateful he survived, in any case. And so should you. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell you my story. Because my dad, the last of my Ferdis’ and Berta’s five children, was only born in 1944.
And dad was so close to getting killed before he could celebrate his second birthday, too! The Allied forces were bombing the region, trying to destroy the coalmine, the Nazi steel plants, and the military airport that had been built in the middle of the basin—anything to end that stupid, deadly war.
That day, grandma Berta had sent my oldest aunt Lucia to one of the farms nearby to get some eggs and milk. And Lucia had taken my dad with her.
She was walking back home, following the dusty country road, whistling a song to her baby brother, when the sirens were sounded in the distance, announcing an impending air raid.
The merry tune died on Lucia’s lips. She clasped the child more tightly and looked up.
The sky was empty, a big blue ocean of spring. Then Lucia discovered the tiny spots appearing from behind the Eastern summits, an entire squadron of silvery hornets moving toward her. She gulped and sped up, fast and faster, until she almost ran. She had to find shelter, and quickly, too.
But the first airplanes were upon her, sparkling like beautiful angels of death, before she could reach the nearest farm. The engines roared above her head, she could hear the first explosions in the distance, their deep and terrifying Boom!-Boom!-Boom! drawing closer and closer.
At last, weeping and in panic, she jumped into a trench, protecting the screaming child with her body. She was trembling with fear, praying that the high grass would hide them from danger.
Luckily, the Allied pilots had more important targets to destroy than a teenage girl and a baby.
As to grandpa Ferdi, he survived the war, too. He worked, he raised his five kids. But his imprint on my life remains fuzzy. Unless you count his legacy in terms of precocious baldness and constant thirst. Thanks to him, I’m no teetotaller, quite the contrary.
What remains of him are a few black-and-white photos. In one of them, he’s pushing my sister’s baby stroller: bald and paunchy Ferdinand Dohr, big smile and proud look on his face.
There are memory fragments, too. My granddad smoking his pipe. My granddad coming home dead drunk one day. It was a Sunday, shortly before noon. He had shit in his trousers, that drunk he was. Grandma Berta threw a fit, as who wouldn’t.
“Even an ox is brighter than you!” she yelled while yanking his soiled trousers off his legs. “An ox stops drinking when it ain’t thirsty anymore!”

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